Jane Smith, is a mom and a wife, with a job in the security business in Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Hummingbird Salamander. Jane lives a normal American life, constantly questioning if this is the best life she could be living. She is a big woman, a wrestler who no longer wrestles, but does work out at a strip mall gym, not the designer variety. Her boss has named her giant hand-bag ‘Shovel Pig,’ signaling to her that she is not exactly a dainty woman, which she already knows. She decides to keep the name. She is in the American game, working to get ahead, trying to avoid office politics. Until one day someone hands her an envelope outside her favorite coffee shop with a cryptic message – an address and a key, and a message that says if Jane receives this envelope the sender is probably dead.
Would you bite? Would you get more and more distracted from your fairly normal life, lose everything to solve an increasingly twisted and dangerous mystery pathway, somehow related to either ecoterrorism or solving climate change? Can anyone embrace a cause fully without having it take over their life? Can you be a true activist without putting your family in jeopardy, without losing your job, perhaps even your home, your reputation, your clean criminal record? Would living a life on the run make you feel rootless and disoriented? Could you keep your focus on your target goals until you reached your own personal endgame?
Silvina, the woman Jane never meets, the woman who sent her the note, who leads her to a hummingbird, and eventually a salamander, the woman who puts Jane in mortal danger, is just such a committed activist. She seems, for some reason, to pick Jane as her successor. Will Jane ever solve the mystery of who Silvina is, how she is connected to Jane, and what she wants Jane to see and do. Entering this book is like entering an Escape Room where clues keep leading you to an exit that seems to recede into the distance just when you think the riddle is solved. You don’t get out of this Escape Room unless you finish the novel. Halfway through I got so frustrated, so angry at what Jane was doing to her life that I wanted to quit, but I could not put the book down.
There are no plans for stopping climate change in this book that would ever have worked. But we do learn if Silvina was a fraud or a true activist and she does present us with a result, sort of, maybe. As the story moves along the climate worsens, the color of the sky is a sickly gray-green and weather conditions are erratic – rain alternating with snow and sleet, excessive warmth replaced by freezing cold. Life doesn’t stop in an instant. The world goes on and people adapt to each new climate change as best they can. There are refugee ships full of climate migrants out on the oceans with nowhere to land.
There will be a hummingbird, and a salamander? What happens to them? What do they represent? Hummingbird Salamander is a conundrum because of the clues Jane follows and the threats she faces. It’s a thriller.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder is an authentic piece of journalism about Americans fed up with our social systems which consistently rob middle-class Americans of things they felt were part of the ‘social contract.’ In a land where our Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), we assume that our government would not legislate against our rights.
Although governing is complicated it seems clear to most of us ‘bottom dwellers’ that our laws have been skewed to advantage the wealthy. When the wealthy play with the stock market and the economy to tweak it so they can get wealthier it hurts those whose finances are least secure. We are taught that consumption is good. We are dazzled by credit card offers that allow us to live well.
But when the rich go too far and we land in the Great Depression or the Great Recession people at the bottom, perhaps those very folks who believed the promise of credit as a road to comfort, fall off the economic scale.
They lose a job, they age out of the job market, they can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t afford health insurance and a major health crisis hits, their long time employer goes bankrupt and they lose their pension, or they are a widowed housewife who now has to live on the abbreviated Social Security they get from their dead husband’s account.
These are the people who sell their homes or lose their homes, who refuse to be homeless, who can find employment but not unless they travel to where employers are hiring. They buy a van or an RV, new or used depending on how much they were able to salvage from their previous life.
They outfit their RV, or van, or bus, or even just their car using lots of advice from those who have set out on this journey before them. They make places to bed down, they deal with how they will get electricity and water if they end up at a campsite with no amenities, they add solar panels hiding them if possible because they are not allowed to have them in some places where they camp, and they figure out what to do about showers and wastes.
There are websites for this. On Reddit there is a thread called ‘vandwellers’. There are searchable maps on a site like FreeCampsites.net, Allstays.com. There is a Wallydocking app. There are websites for Workampers who are seeking jobs to pay for their expenses, to possibly save up for a more comfortable van experience.
Jessica Bruder is a journalist, a writer. When she decided to write about this population she had a hard time getting vandwellers to speak to her. The media had not been kind; they tended to eventually get around to using the word ‘homeless’ which is offensive to vandwellers. These nomads tell the author that they have nothing against the ‘homeless,’ they are just not at all homeless. They have a home; it just is not anchored in one place.
Because the National Park Service allows campers only fourteen days on a site, vandwellers have to move frequently. You can work as a camp host, cleaning bathrooms and campsites, checking in campers, stay for an entire season, and get paid, but these jobs are being eliminated.
Amazon hires workampers at Christmastime but these jobs are difficult for seniors as they involve walking for many miles on the concrete warehouse floors, bending and rising, and hefting a weighty scanner that keeps track of your every move. Workampers consider the challenges worth the rewards, although some do not make it in these physically taxing jobs.
Bruder makes friends with a camper named Linda May and she finally outfits a van of her own, which she names Halen, and joins Linda at sites vandwellers frequent, such as Quartzite, Arizona (The Gathering Place) and the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. She gets to listen to and learn from many vandwellers when she actually lives the life. Swankie Wheels is one of her sources, Bob Wells who started the website CheapRVLiving.com, Silvianne the astrologer, someone called Ghost Dancer.
One of her sources tells her, “[w]e’re facing the first ever reversal in retirement security in modern US history. Starting with the baby boomer, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards…” (pg. 62) Another source says, “[b[y moving into vans and other vehicles people could become conscientious objectors to the system that had failed them. They could be reborn into lives of freedom and adventure.” (pg. 75)
Bruder writes, “[w]hile it’s human nature to put on a good face in turbulent times — and to present that face to strangers – something else was also appearing among the nomads. The truth as I see it is that most people struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning, and kinship when confronted with adversity. In other words the nomads I’d been interviewing for months were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers” (pp. 164-5)
Linda May is an especially interesting and aware vandweller. Beset by adversity she still has a grand plan to build an “Earthship” of dirt-packed tires and to get off the grid on her own land. As Nomadland ends she sets foot on the property she has saved for, searched for and purchased, and she is getting ready to build. She has made friends along the way who have promised to help.
The author finds it hard to leave the vandwellers and return to her own life to write the book she has researched and she concludes in this way:
“The most widely accepted measure for calculating income inequality is a century old formula called the Gini coefficient. It’s a gold standard for economists around the globe, along with the World Bank, the CIA, and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. What it reveals is startling. Today the United States has the most unequal society of all developed nations. America’s level of inequality is comparable to that of Russia, China, Argentina, and the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.” (pg. 247)
Obviously, I also have had some trouble leaving the vandwellers behind as I continue to digest the details of life on the road and the philosophies that maintain those whose lives have become nomadic. I worry that this could happen to me, or indeed, anyone I know. I have a friend who chooses to be nomadic for a portion of the year, but he and his wife own two expensive properties. Not the same thing at all.
The fact that women are safe and able to pursue this lifestyle if it becomes necessary helps lift my spirits a bit but the thought of 10-hour shifts at an Amazon warehouse to keep me in groceries has the opposite effect. It’s as if we are playing a game where colorful ‘peebles’ are lined up on a shelf and as new ‘peebles’ are added at the front end of the shelf, identical looking ‘peebles’ are falling off the shelf at the other end. Are you ready for Nomadland? Check out more of what Jessica Bruder learned and do a bit of soul-searching.
There is a writer’s lecture series at a local theater which is currently held as a Zoom presentation because of the covid pandemic. You buy a ticket and you are registered to attend. Meg Wolitzer was the writer and the book she was speaking about was The Female Persuasion. I ordered the book but did not finish it in time so I never bought a ticket to the presentation. I find it hard to keep track of the many zoom meetings that come to me in my email. I am sorry I missed it though. I don’t often get to see a best-selling author in person (on zoom).
I finished the book not long after that, although spring had been a pleasant distraction. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer covered women’s rights territory that had key moments in my younger years, and here in this novel we have young people involved in the women’s movement which is having another key moment. Women’s rights are under attack. Hard won concerns, once thought resolved, could possibly be overturned here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Wolitzer’s book does not spend much time arguing the issues though.
Greer Kadestsky, a young lady who did not get to attend the college of her dreams with her boyfriend, Cory, finds herself at a smaller college. Despite having to travel to keep her relationship with Cory alive, Greer makes a good friend Zee. Although Zee is gay and Greer is not, their friendship transcends their sexuality. When Greer meets an iconic figure from the women’s movement of the 60’s, Faith Frank, she finds her focus. Zee has guilted her into going to the lecture, but it is Greer who becomes a Faith Frank fan.
After college Greer goes to work for Faith and overcomes her fear of public speaking, but she also learns about the compromises Faith has felt it necessary to make. Greer eventually criticizes the lack of purity in her mentor. Her mentor reminds Greer of something Greer has done which is a betrayal of a relationship.
Greer also has some lessons to learn about her relationship with Cory, a man who does not just talk the talk. It turns out that he understands love and sacrifice in ways that Greer does not recognize – until she finally does.
It’s a good story and some of the observations about compromise, and purity, and the correlations between means and ends are interesting to think about for our own lives and issues. It just didn’t grip me. It wasn’t relevant enough to women’s rights to hook me. Today’s news, modern activism and the current makeup of the Supreme Court offer far more gripping concerns. The mentor relationship was less interactive than it kept promising to be. However, Cory I came to like very much, and he might end up being the best mentor for Greer in this novel.